5 hard changes that would advance American conservatism

The Week
Maybe we should cut defense spending, after all...
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Maybe we should cut defense spending, after all...

It's high time that we conservatives accepted and embraced difficult realities

The British SAS has a motto: Who Dares Wins.

This is a motto American conservatives need to internalize. And here's how they can put it into action.

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1. TAX POLICY

As part of a major debt deal centered on reforming entitlements, we should support the elimination of state and local tax deductions.

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If we're to achieve a grand bargain, more revenue will have to be on the table. This isn't a statement of conservative treason; it's an uncomfortable but unassailable demand of political reality. The Democrats control the White House and the Senate. And compromising on tax revenue doesn't have to be a bad thing.

Florida has no state income tax. Conversely, in New York, there's a pretty hefty state income tax. But because a Floridian has far less state taxes with which to offset his federal tax bill, he is at a disadvantage to the New Yorker. In effect, the Floridian is subsidizing the New Yorker's tax bill. This is deeply unfair. Just as state residency does not define national identity, neither should it shape the responsibilities of citizenship. By removing these deductions, conservatives would achieve two key objectives. First, in producing around $580 billion over 10 years, conservatives would increase pressure on the president to make major entitlement reforms. Second, we'd draw a clearer contrast between high and low tax states.

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2. NATIONAL SECURITY POLICY

We should accept Obama's 10-year defense spending proposals.

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America greatest threat is our national debt. Accepting this reality, the president's proposal of $450 billion in 10-year cuts is difficult but doable. We could, for example, reform the military health care system and refocus our support towards veterans. We could downsize our footprint in Europe. We could reduce our civilian defense workforce. These proposals would strengthen our hand at the broader debt negotiating table. But they'd also give us the credibility to draw a line against the sequester defense cuts and any future defense cuts. And having previously shown our willingness to examine the defense books, we'd be able to make a much stronger case to the American people.

3. SOCIAL POLICY

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America's incarceration system is a mess. By regularly imprisoning low-level offenders like drug users, we encourage lives of recidivism. This approach costs us dearly, both in our pockets and in our communities. We should refocus prison terms towards serial/violent offenders. Doing so would reduce the negative costs of our current system and would illustrate that compassionate conservatism is responsive and real.

4. POLITICAL RELATIONSHIPS

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Both Republicans and Democrats love dipping into the cookie pot of patronage — and we must end the influence of these special interests. Consider the conservative relationship with the pharmaceutical lobby. True, this industry needs a profit incentive to develop the drugs from which we all benefit. But why should Americans subsidize the research and development that produces drugs that benefit the world? Take federal purchase agreements like that of Medicare Part D, a pernicious blend of protectionism and cronyism. If we're to be the purveyors of free markets, then we must avoid picking winners and losers. We should trust the market to do that.

5. IDENTITY POLITICS

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Conservatives need to look in the mirror. We need to challenge orthodoxy, but without letting the conflict divide us. As Matt Lewis has pointed out, two top conservative media outlets aren't exactly best buddies at the moment. Karl Rove and Newt Gingrich don't seem too happy with each other. And the list goes on. Gay Marriage? Immigration? Ours is a movement divided.

We must resist the temptation to retreat into pockets of subjective ideological purity. By listening and debating, we can find the strains of consistency that bind us. And from this foundation, we'll be in a far better place to forge new consensus in our areas of division.

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For conservatives, the challenges are great. But we need to dare. We need to ensure that our focus remains tightly tuned to the American interest rather than the interest of power. We need to respect each other. If we do, we'll have a winning recipe for conservative advancement.

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